The Jonesville Riverfest will not be taking place in Jonesville this year, but the event may move its location to the City of Hillsdale, according to Don Germann, member of Jonesville Riverfest Committee, and Hillsdale Mayor Adam Stockford.
A request from the City of Jonesville to receive written approval from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency and later discussions with the health agency resulted in the Jonesville Riverfest Committee rescinding it’s “request for the use of City facilities” for the event during a March 17 Jonesville City Council Meeting.
“With not hosting Riverfest in 2020, businesses and communities lost out, so canceling this year is devastating,” Germann said.
Germann said he hopes the other members of the Jonesville Riverfest Committee will consider working with the City of Hillsdale to hold the annual event.
“Mayor Stockford offered to allow us to come to Hillsdale to host Riverfest, and I’m all about collaboration,” Germann said. “I’m going to go back to the Riverfest Committee and use his invitation to grow Riverfest by engaging Hillsdale, Jonesville, and Litchfield.”
Stockford said if the committee moves in that direction, he’s confident the two cities could put together a strong event.
“We love our neighbors in Jonesville, and we are here for them,” Stockford said. “I’m happy to partner with their leadership over there on anything needed.”
In a letter written by Jonesville City Manager Jeffrey Gray on Feb. 19, 2021, addressed to Laura Orlowski, the secretary of Jonesville Connect – – which is private non-profit organization that organizes community events for Jonesville like Riverfest –– Gray specified that the committee’s plan for Riverfest “must include a written approval from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency as it regards compliance with public health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Jonesville business owner Jim Pope, who has helped organize Riverfest for more than 20 years and is a member of the Jonesville Riverfest Committee, said he spoke with two employees from the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency about gaining written approval for the event.
“There was no way the health department was going to give us permission,” Pope said. “Once the health department said that they would not give us permission, Don and the rest of us, asked, ‘Why do the rest of what the city wanted when we can’t meet all of the requirements?’”
At the March 17 Jonesville City Council meeting during public comment, Germman, who has helped organize Riverfest for more than 15 years, read a letter written on March 17, 2021 addressed to Gray and the City Council. In the letter, Germann read: “Given the requirements to be granted permission, it is unlikely that these will be met given recent conversations with the Public Health Agency’s inability to provide written approval for events in any of the three county’s [sic] that they oversee.”
Gray said the city was hopeful about being able to provide the facilities for Riverfest this year, but he and the council did not feel the Jonesville Riverfest Committee addressed all of the city’s concerns in the request to use facilities.
“The main thing the city wanted to see was how the event would change due to COVID-19,” Gray said. “We wanted to know that proper health and safety measures were in place and were looking for detail in terms of how the event would be executed differently compared to a normal year.”
Gray said the city was most concerned with how the committee planned on spacing out the entries in the car show, along with food and craft vendors.
In the Jonesville Riverfest Committee’s request for “downtown sidewalks” “the closure of” streets and “use of the Carl Fast Park” written on March 8, 2021, the committee detailed three key points for the event: “1) Hosting a limited number of craft vendors in the downtown and Maumee Street are (overflow potential on Church Street) that are adequately spaced apart 2) Hosting two food vendors in the ‘Jonesville Glassworks’ parking lot with no seating area 3) Hosting a limited number of car/bike show participants and potentially a tractor show in the Carl Fast Park.”
Although the request to use city facilities did not specify distances between car show entries and other vendors, Pope said people have had the last year to practice spatial distancing.
“The crafters were always pretty spaced out, and this year I was planning on spacing them out a little bit more than previous years,” Pope said.
Within the request, Jonesville Riverfest Committee members also compared Riverfest to other large local outdoor events like the Strawberry Fest in Coldwater and Polish Festival in Bronson, both of which are still planned to happen according to the letter.
The request also read the following: “We are not asking anyone who is concerned to step outside of their comfort zone to participate, but we are requesting that you, the city manager and City Council, support our local businesses and community with this annual event request.”
Both Germann and Pope said the Riverfest is an economic stimulus for the City of Jonesville and surrounding areas. Referring to local businesses that have suffered because of COVID-19 regulations, Germann said this year’s Riverfest would have been particularly beneficial for Jonesville’s restaurants.
“That’s part of the devastation of the cancellation this year,” Germann said.
Although he could not provide specific numbers, Pope said there are typically 60 – 70 vendors lined up in front of businesses in downtown Jonesville, and Riverfest brings in about 5,000 people over the course of one weekend.
“The restaurants really would do well in the two to three days of Riverfest,” Pope said. “We had crafters come from as far as Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.”
Even with this setback for the Jonesville Riverfest Committee, Gray said the City Council has a good working relationship with the committee.
“Members of council have served on that committee in the past, and one of the council members serves on the committee currently. We’re a small town, and we all know one another.”
Gray was referring to George Humphries Jr., who was asked by the Mayor Pro-Tem Tim Bowman to recuse himself from voting and discussing Riverfest as an agenda item during the March 17 City Council meeting.
Germann said, however, the council allowed Humphries to talk about Riverfest during public comment.
“City Council members, for the time I’ve been engaged with Riverfest, have been involved in Riverfest,” Germann said. “It does not make sense that this year they would ask George to recuse himself. George wouldn’t have had a strong influence over other members of the council, but it would have been nice to have his input on their behalf.”
Sockford said no official steps have been taken to move Jonesville’s Riverfest to Hillsdale as of March 31, but he and Germann are both optimistic about the possibility of putting together a new event for both communities.
“My hope is that with this loss, we can grow a greater event,” Germann said. “This has always been a wonderful spring community event to kick off the year.”